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Mary Sue

Hello, friends.  This week I'm talking about a problem every author will face at one time or another.  I'm talking about the Mary Sue.

If you don't know what a Mary Sue (MS) is, I'll give you my version and then point you toward some other resources for more in-depth reading.  To me, a MS is a character, usually the main character, that is inexplicably awesome, stuff always goes right for them, and if it doesn't they are usually prophesied/fated to "win" at the end of the story.  Their enemies lose, big time.  And they get the girl/guy/unicorn/whatever.  They might be remarkably similar to the author, probably a very idealized version of her or him.  TV Tropes has a great article on the MS.  Here's one from Know Your Meme and another from Fanlore.
Curious if you have a MS in one of your stories?  There are a few online tests to run your characters through here, here, and here, plus others I'm sure.  Some of these questions need to be taken with a grain of salt.  If your character has wacky traits, but so does everyone else, your character isn't a MS, that's just the world of your story.  Also, since the MS originated in fanfiction, these quizzes focus on that aspect quite a bit when it may not pertain your story at all.  There is also some disagreement about the difference between a MS and an Author Insertion (AI).  AI happens when the author literally writes themselves into the story.  They might not be exactly the same, but if you know the author, it doesn't take you long to identify that character as them.
This page goes into detail with critiques of that last MS quiz.  In particular, the author wants to clarify the differences between a MS, an AI, plot points, and cliches.  To be honest, it's very long and I didn't read the entire thing, just her arguments.  While I don't agree with her 100%, I feel she makes some good points.  1) The term has changed since its origin and will continue to change because... the internet.  2) Just because your character has some MS traits doesn't mean you can't a. write a good story b. get published c. become a bestselling author (*cough* Patrick Rothfuss *cough*).  It's important to keep in mind that just because one person (even if it's you) or quiz says your character is an MS or an AI, that doesn't mean that they are bad.  If the majority of your target audience loves your story as is, no sweat!
So, let's say you've read the linked articles, you've taken the quizzes, and you even read through the really long critique of the litmus test.  (You don't know who Pat is, but we'll let that slide.)  You think your character might be a MS OR you can see how others might misconstrue your character as a MS, and you don't think you can let it slide this time.  Is it fixable?  Is it avoidable in the future?  Absolutely to both.

In the past, I've written from characters who were the opposite gender of me because it removed the temptation for me to commit AI.  I also like to write in multiple viewpoints to keep from projecting myself too strongly into any one character.  While working on The Neif, I sometimes find myself turning Delo into a MS because she's my main character, and I want her to be awesome.  But if I keep throwing obstacles in her path, she can't just lithely leap over each one.  Eventually she has to crash and burn or I won't even be able to stand her.  In building her as a character I did and am doing my best to maker her a fully fleshed out character, to be able to stand on her own feet.  And I'm still fighting to keep her from becoming an MS.
Sommer Leigh
Still feeling the pressure? Look at your story.  Look at your character.  Are the laws of physics ever broken in your story?  I'm not talking about the Newtonian laws (although it wouldn't hurt to give them a once over).  I'm talking about the social laws of physics in your world.  If everyone likes the character, except those who are evil or jealous, and its almost as if the whole world wanted to lay itself at the feet of the character, there is a problem.  If you read or skimmed the above articles, you'll probably recognize this as The Warper.  Robert Jordan actually incorporated this trope into the Wheel of Time series as part of the prophecy, gave it the name Ta'veren, and just kept writing.  Is there an easy fix like that for you?  Or does your story suffer from the MS's inability to be faced with serious adversity?  

As an author I want my readers to root for my characters.  But if the readers don't feel that my character is at risk of being compromised, why would they?  Why would they care to even finish my book?  For the stories that deserve to be told well, there won't be an easy fix.  There will be rewrites upon rewrites, red pen marks, "nicer" purple pen marks, late nights, caffeine binges, maybe some frustrated tears, and definitely forehead massaging.  Somewhere between Insanely Amazing and Ordinary Believable there is a middle ground called Relatable.  It may take some work to find it, but it is there.  My stories deserve it, and so do yours.


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